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Social Media Bots

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Introduction

In my novel “Influence”, the lead character J@ck Tr@de spends a lot of time creating and improving Social Media Bots. I thought in this article I’d spend a bit of time providing some background on these. Social Media Bots weren’t made up by me, they’ve been around for a while. It is estimated that 15-20% of all social media accounts are really Bots and that 15-20% of all posts on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were created by these Bots.

For anyone interested, my book is available either as a paperback or as a Kindle download on Amazon.com:

Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730927661
Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L477CF6

What is a Bot?

Bot is short for Robot and really means a computer program that is pretending to be a real human being. Early bots were easy to identify and rather simple, but over time they’ve become more and more sophisticated, even to the extent of being credited with getting Donald Trump elected as president of the USA.

The original Bots were spambots, which were programs that just send out spam emails. Basically hackers would take over people’s computers and install a program on them (the spambot) which would then send out spam to all the contacts on the poor victim’s email. Programmers found these quite effective and took the same idea to social media.

Most of these Bots are quite simple and just work to advocate some idea by posting from a collection of human created messages. They can be trying to influence political views, direct people to dubious websites or perhaps just make people mad for the fun of it.

There is an interesting website, Botometer, that will analyse a Twitter account and score it to see if it’s a bot. I ran it on all my Twitter followers and quite a few got a score indicating they were Bots.

Bots Get More Sophisticated

Like any computer programs, Bots keep coming out with new versions getting more and more sophisticated. They now create quite realistic Internet personas with photos and a history. If you look at such a Bot’s Facebook page, you might be hard pressed to tell that it doesn’t belong to a real person. Creating social media accounts is pretty easy with very little verification. You just need a valid email account and need the ability to respond to the email that is sent to ensure it is you, plus perhaps fool a simple captcha tool.

Another newer Bot is the so called ChatBot. These are programs that can carry on a conversation. They can use modern sophisticated machine learning algorithms to carry on a conversation on a topic like providing movie reviews. Many companies are trying to deploy ChatBots to automate their customer service. Companies can purchase ChatBot kits that they can customize for their own customer service needs. Often companies use ChatBots to handle their social media accounts. A major large company can’t answer all the Tweets and Facebook posts it receives, so they automate this with a Chatbot. Sometime this is effective, sometimes it just pisses people off. The feeling is that people getting some sort of answer is better than no answer.

The developers that create Social Media Bots took this same technology and incorporated it into their Bots. Now these Bots don’t just post canned messages, but can also carry on limited conversations on these topics. Often political campaigns employ these to give the impression they have far more support than they really do. If you post a comment to a news article on Facebook, often you get responses almost right away. Often most of these responses are actually from Social Media Bots using ChatBot technology. The Russians really spearheaded this in the American 2016 election campaign.

As Machine Learning and AI technology gets more and more powerful, these Social Media Bots get harder and harder to distinguish from real people. Especially given the low quality of posts from actual real people. When a corporation uses a Chatbot for technical support, it will identify itself as such and often has an option to switch to a real person (perhaps with quite a long wait time), but when you are on Social Media, how do you really know who you are talking to?

In my book, Influence, the main character, J@ck programs his Bots to both network and to modify their own code. As it is, Bots behave as viruses and spread maliciously from computer to computer. The current Bots tend to rely on volume to do their damage. But as in Influence, perhaps the Bots will start to coordinate their actions and work together to accomplish their goals. Given the number of computing devices connected to the Internet, a successfully spread Bot could harness tremendous computing power to spread its Influence. Applying new algorithms for reinforcement and adaptive learning, the programs can get more and more effective out in the wild without requiring additional coding from their creators. Is it really that far fetched that this network of Bots couldn’t become aware or intelligent in some sort of sense?

Summary

Twenty percent of users and twenty percent of posts on Social Media are via automated Bots and not created by real people. Should you believe what you see on Facebook, should you be influenced by all the tweets you see going by on Twitter? Are your thought processes critical enough to filter out all the automated noise that is being targeted at you? Are your consumer decisions on what you buy or your political decisions on how you vote being controlled by all these Bots? This is definitely something people should be aware of you should be aware of this and don’t just believe it all.

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Written by smist08

February 5, 2019 at 9:38 pm

The Technology of “Influence” – Part 3 The Onion Browser

with 2 comments

Introduction

In my novel “Influence”, the lead character J@ck Tr@de performs various hacking tasks. In the book he spends a lot of time securing his connections, hiding his identity and hiding his location. In this series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about the various technologies mentioned in the book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I’ve talked about HTTPS and VPNs so far, now we’re going to discuss the Onion Browser and the Tor network.

For anyone interested, my book is available either as a paperback or as a Kindle download on Amazon.com:

Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730927661
Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L477CF6

The Tor Network

Tor is an abbreviation for The Onion Router. You tend to see Tor and Onion used interchangeably. Nowadays Tor tends to refer to the Tor network and Onion to the open source browser that utilizes the Tor network to browse the web.

The Tor network and Onion Browser were developed by a group of people dedicated to security, privacy and anonymity. The Tor network depends on thousands of volunteers operating Tor network nodes (servers). When you use the Onion browser, each server connection that you use goes through a different random path through these Tor network nodes. Each node acts like a VPN, encrypting communications and hiding the location of the original request. To some degree using the Tor network is like using a set of different VPNs for each website you visit. This makes tracking you down very hard.

The Onion Browser is an open source Internet browser that performs all it’s requests through the Tor network.

The Dark Web

The dark web consist of a number of websites that aren’t linked to from the regular web. They only accept requests over the Tor network and you have to find out about them through means other than Googling. This so-called dark web has been know to host all sorts of “bad” e-commerce sites dealing in illegal drugs, human trafficking and child pornography. Whenever law enforcement tries to ban encryption or anonymity, they always use these sites as excuses to be able to track and spy on normal people’s web activity.

On the other hand in highly repressive states which block a lot of Internet traffic with the outside world, the Tor network and the dark web are the only way that dissidents can freely communicate, or that regular citizens can browse the web at all. Generally governments spend way more time tracking dissidents than they ever spend tracking down the illegal websites they claimed to be upset about.

How Safe Is It?

That all sounds pretty good, so why doesn’t J@ck just use the Onion browser and just not bother with all the other things he does? For one thing, government security services spend a lot of time trying to crack the Tor network. Many of the thousands of nodes in the Tor network are actually operated by government agencies. If one of these is your exit node, then they can get quite a bit of info on you. It’s a bit of a race between the developers of the Tor network and government departments like Homeland Security as to how safe the network is at any time.

Another problem is that even though, say Google can trace who you are from the network traffic, they can record things like your typing patterns and mouse movement patterns. These are apparently just like fingerprints and can be used to identify you. Other means are required to disguise these sort of things.

A general maxim in security is never trust anything entirely. The original name of the Onion browser was based on this idea of having many layers of security like the layers of an Onion. Tor provides several layers, but you can add more layers to be more secure.

Performance

Every server that you hit introduces a delay as that server receives, processes and then transmits your network packets of information. With the Tor network, you introduce a bunch of these delays to give you better security and privacy. Further, not all the Tor nodes have the greatest Internet bandwidth or server power. After all they are paid for and operated by volunteers. This all adds up to the Tor network being very slow. If you ever try to download a movie of the Tor network it will take forever. This is why people pay for VPNs with decent bandwidth and performance, rather than using Tor. If you aren’t downloading movies, and just doing small queries then it is usable. This is what J@ck tends to be doing.

Summary

The Tor network and Onion Browser are key tools used by every hacker. It provides great security and anonymity at the cost of access speed. If you want to check out the dark web then you need to use the Onion Browser.

Written by smist08

December 22, 2018 at 2:57 am

The Technology of “Influence” – Part 2 VPN

with 3 comments

Introduction

In my novel “Influence”, the lead character J@ck Tr@de performs various hacking tasks. In the book he spends a lot of time securing his connections, hiding his identity and hiding his location. In a series of blog posts, I’m going to talk about the various technologies mentioned in the book like VPN, the Onion Browser, Kali Linux and using VHF radios. I talked about HTTPS in my last post and in this article, we’re going to discuss Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

For anyone interested, my book is available either as a paperback or as a Kindle download on Amazon.com:

Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730927661
Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L477CF6

What is a VPN?

We talked about HTTPS last time as a way to secure the communications protocol that a Browser uses to talk to a Web Server. Now consider a corporate network. People at work have their computers hooked directly into the corporate network. They use this to access email, various internal corporate websites, shared network drives and other centrally deployed applications. All of these services have their own network protocols all different than HTTP. Some of these protocols have secure variants, some don’t. Some have heavy security, some light security. Now suppose you want to access these from home or from a hotel while on a business trip? You certainly can’t just do this over the Internet, because its a public network and anyone can see what you are doing. You need a way to secure all these protocols. This is the job of VPN. When you activate VPN on your laptop, it creates a secure tunnel from your laptop through the Internet to a server in your secure corporate data center. The security mechanisms VPN uses are largely the same as HTTPS and pretty secure. Using VPN then allows you to work securely from home or from remote locations while travelling.

Why Would J@ck Use VPN?

J@ck Tr@de doesn’t work for a corporation. Why does he use VPN? Whose VPN does he use? In the example above, if I’m connected to my corporate VPN, all my network traffic is tunnelled through the VPN to the corporate server. So if I browse the Internet while connected to VPN, my HTTPS requests are sent to the corporate server and then it sends them to the Internet. This extra step slows things down, but it has an interesting side-effect. If I’m not signed into Google and I Google something, Google will see my Internet Address as the corporate server rather than my laptop. That means Google won’t know who I am exactly. It also means my location shows up as the location of the corporate server. This then hides both my location and my identity, things J@ck is very interested in doing.

But J@ck doesn’t work for a corporation? Whose VPN does he use? This “feature” of hiding identity and location is sufficiently valuable that people like J@ck will pay for it. This has resulted in companies setting up VPNs just for this purpose. Their VPN server doesn’t connect to other corporate network programs, only the Internet. Using one of these VPN services will help hide your identity and location, or at least websites can’t determine these from the address fields in your web network packets.

VPNs are popular with non-hackers as well to get at geographically locked content. For instance if you live in Canada, then the content you can get from Netflix is different than the content you get in the USA. But if you are in Canada and connect to a US based VPN server then Netflix will see you as being located in the USA and will give you the US content while you are connected.

Downsides of VPN

Sounds good, so what’s the catch? One is that since these are usually paid services, so you need to pay a monthly fee. Further, you need to authenticate to the VPN service so they know who you are. The VPN knows your IP address so it can trace who and where you are.

So do you trust your VPN? Here you have to be careful. If the VPN provider is located in the USA, then its subject to the Patriot Act and law enforcement can get ahold of their info. If you want US Netflix content, then you have to use an US based VPN, but at the same time US law enforcement really doesn’t care that much about the vagaries of what Netflix allows where. If you are a hacker then you really care and probably want to use a VPN in a country with some protections. For instance in Europe, getting a warrant for this is very difficult. Or perhaps use a VPN in the Caribbean that tend to ignore external law enforcement agencies requests. A bit of Googling can help here. Some hackers use a two or three VPNs at once, located in wildly different jurisdictions to make it even harder to be traced.

Internet bandwidth is expensive, so feeding streaming movies through a VPN can require their delux expensive plan. Doing little bits of hacking doesn’t require that much bandwidth so can be a little cheaper.

There are free VPNs, but most of these are considered rather suspect since they must be supporting themselves somehow, perhaps by selling secrets. VPNs are illegal in some countries like Iraq or North Korea. VPNs are required to be run by the government in other countries like China and Russia. So be wary of these.

Summary

VPNs are a way to secure your general Internet communications. They have the desirable side-effect of hiding your Internet address and location. VPNs are absolutely necessary for corporate security and useful enough that lots of other people use them as well,

Notice that J@ck doesn’t just rely on an VPN by itself, rather its one layer in a series of protections to ensure his anonymity and privacy.

Written by smist08

December 13, 2018 at 12:34 am

“Influence” – My First Novel

with 10 comments

Introduction

I am really excited that my first novel is now available for sale on Amazon as either a paperback or as a Kindle download. Here is the synopsis for the novel:

Influence is set in the present about punk rock hacker, J@ck Tr@de, who discovers a security backdoor in a large corporate server operating system to gain access to all of the world’s servers. He uses this illicit access to mine bitcoin and influence local politics via Social Media. He becomes criminally and romantically entwined with Mia, the creator of the backdoor and their plans escalate to increase their wealth and power. The FBI investigate and chase them, in a clumsy cat and mouse game. As the story progresses, J@ck’s Social Media altering Bots become more and more influential.l. They make J@ck a billionaire through stock market manipulation. The Social Media Bots continue to evolve…

Where It Began

I’ve been writing this blog since January, 2009. That will be ten years of blogging next month! I really enjoy blogging, mostly on my technology interests. This blog started by being all things ACCPAC, since that’s what I worked on originally at Computer Associates, then ACCPAC International and finally Sage. I find I really enjoy writing and was looking to do more. Almost three years ago I retired, and at that point mostly lost my main blogging topic on Sage 300 (ACCPAC).

I’ve always been a big Science Fiction fan, I’ve read Science Fiction since elementary school with books like Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr series. When I started at Computer Associates, I lived in Tsawwassen and had a long bus ride commute downtown. I spent most of this ride voraciously reading all the Science Fiction novels nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as well as whatever my favorite authors published.

We spent this March down in Yuma, Arizona. One of the things we did while we were down there was attend the “Write On the Edge” writing group. This group gets together weekly at the Yuma Foothills Library to do some writing. They do some sort of writing exercise each meeting. The first time we attended, it was to write a few paragraphs on a topic that a moderator chose. Since Easter was approaching, the topic was “Easter Eggs”. There were a lot of short pieces on people’s favorite Easter family moments (whether real or imagined) and one about horrible carnivorous beasts hatching from the eggs. I took the approach of computer software Easter Eggs meaning little jewels buried in the code. This led to the creation of the J@ck Tr@de character and the few paragraphs around where he finds the W-Server backdoor.

Then as we did the 24 hour drive back home (over three days), I kept thinking about those few paragraphs and felt I had enough ideas to develop it into a novel. This then led to “Influence”.

A Lot of Writing

When I got home, I put the blogging aside (hence no articles here from March to July) and started my novel. I first wrote a very quick outline. Mostly a beginning and an ending, some settings and some notes on some characters. I then started writing. I tried to write at least two pages a day. Sometimes more, and there were only a couple of days when I didn’t write anything. I participated in a couple of writing groups, one in Gibsons and one in North Vancouver. These were get togethers at coffee shops where writers bring their laptops and write. My wife, Cathalynn Labonte-Smith is also an author. She has Creative Writing, Technical Writing and Teaching degrees. She has worked as an editor and would read what I wrote each day and edit it. I wrote the whole thing in Google Docs, so the collaboration was really easy. I was pretty happy to finish my first and second drafts in July.

It’s Written, Now What?

I then went to publish the book. Most of the bigger publishers only take submissions from literary agents. So I followed the submission guidelines for a number of agencies, but didn’t have any luck. I did quite a bit of online research and talked to quite a few authors. The consensus seemed to be that the publishers were publishing less and less each year and that they only picked up authors who’ve already made a name for themselves on their own. Further the published authors didn’t think the publishing companies do much to promote their work and that they have to do all their own promotion. Meanwhile self-publishing is getting easier and easier. I chose Kindle Direct Publishing form Amazon, mostly because its all online, there are no upfront costs and it was easy. So now my book is on Amazon for sale around the world.

Summary

Buy my book:

Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1730927661

Kindle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L477CF6

It was a lot of fun writing. I planned this book to be the first book in a trilogy and I’ve already written sixty pages of the second volume.

 

Written by smist08

December 5, 2018 at 7:08 pm